Epicurious Eating: Riviera Supper Club & Turquoise Room
Riviera Supper Club a trip down memory lane
Published Thursday, 02-Jul-2009 in issue 1123
If you’re old enough to remember Harvey Wallbangers and Donovan music, the Riviera Supper Club and its adjoining Turquoise Room will wash over your senses with great nostalgic force. For late Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers, it’s an amusing back step into the kind of place that your parents ended up for drinks and steaks after bowling. To anyone younger, the dated architecture stands as a curious hangout against the techno élan of modern-day nightclubs.
Riviera is a veritable shrine to the 1960s, and worth the trip to culinary-restrained La Mesa. Nearly every architectural detail is preserved from when it operated well into the ’70s as a popular steakhouse known as Jamar. Since having been taken over recently by the former owners of The Turf Club, it’s added a retro Las Vegas-style neon sign that looms large over the building’s brawny rock walls and vertical wood beams. An arrow-shaped sign below saying “cocktails” confirms that you’ve arrived to a place no less casual than your favorite neighborhood dive bar.
The interior gives way to drop-pendant lighting and sturdy booths that are believably the originals. Centered in the spacious dining room is a commodious rectangular grill where customers congregate for cooking the meats and veggies they order. It’s an alluring concept carried over from The Turf Club that promotes socialization much better than any flat screen television does in other joints.
The dining room flows into the Turquoise Room, which features an elongated bar and more booth seating. There’s also a jukebox loaded with so many vintage selections that you’ll need to fondle your iPhone to believe that it’s 2009. How about a little Ann Margaret or Petula Clark with your t-bone? Fish out a buck and the choices extend further to The Animals, early Bowie, Donovan, R.E.M., and many other surprising finds.
Riviera’s menu is basically a resurrection of surf-n-turf that winks to forgotten brown-liquor cocktails such as Rusty Nails and Manhattans. Classic vodka-based Harvey Wallbangers and martinis aren’t excluded. The culinary twists are few if you consider the smooth and tangy horseradish-garlic mashed potatoes; the green beans sautéed with excellence in walnut oil with pine nuts and shallots; the irreverent bacon-chocolate cake (I’ll get to that in a moment) and the fact that you cook your own main courses, which essentially turns the atmosphere into a jovial indoor barbecue party.
My companion, a former Turf Clubber, headed straight for his reliable standby – a cowboy, bone-in rib eye that he noted used to be about $3 cheaper at the previous digs. The cut was finely marbled and made more luscious as he spritzed it with Worcestershire sauce in the cooking process. The condiment station near the grill is stocked also with A-1 Steak Sauce (yuck) and a fruity, raisin-y house sauce that has garnered a cult following.
I opted for a plump eight-ounce sirloin steak for only $9.50. But my grilling skills went somewhat awry, perhaps due to a whiskey cocktail planted firmly in hand, which resulted in overcooked edges where a few patches of tough gristle resided. But my thirst for steak was quenched nonetheless, as the cuts all originate from Hamilton Meats rather than from some lowly distributor.
Other entrées include more steaks, burgers, chicken breast, seafood kabobs, catch of the day and portobello mushrooms – brought to your table raw and served with a stick of garlic bread until you decide to pony up to the flames.
Dessert choices include apple-cheddar crisp, s’mores casserole and an outstanding chocolate-malted crème brûlée that feels in the mouth like silky ganache. And then there is the bacon-chocolate cake. Ambivalence struck, because while we could easily taste both the chocolate and the bacon, they didn’t marry into a magical third flavor as we had hoped. So much for trying the chocolate-dipped bacon at the Del Mar Fair this week.
Riviera is tailor-made for groups, attracting a La Mesa-meets-metro crowd that quickly filled the place to capacity by 8 p.m. on our weekday visit. If you can nab a designated driver to ferry you back to San Diego, you’ll come away feeling as though you never left the beaten track.